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Minnesota Timberwolves 2017-18 Season Preview

Basketball Insiders continues our season preview series with the intriguing Minnesota Timberwolves.

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The Minnesota Timberwolves completed one of the biggest deals of the offseason. They dealt promising young players in Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn to the Chicago Bulls for Jimmy Butler, one of the best two-way players in the NBA. Butler, along with Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, helps form quite possibly one of the best trios in the league. For a team looking to finally break through and reach the playoffs, Butler was a huge addition.

They didn’t stop there, however. Tom Thibodeau added several quality veterans in Jeff Teague, Taj Gibson, and Jamal Crawford. These moves made it clear that development is over and playoffs are the goal. The Western Conference is tough though, and it will be a difficult task.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

The 2017-18 Minnesota Timberwolves could be a fascinating clash of standard team-building mantras. On the one hand, summer moves that brought Jimmy Butler and Jeff Teague to town while jettisoning Ricky Rubio unquestionably bolstered the overall talent on the roster, as should expected improvements from young blue-chippers like Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. On the other hand, though, we’ve seen numerous examples of fit struggles for teams trying to incorporate pieces on the fly – and there are a few signs that could be the case in Minnesota. For one thing, their floor spacing could be a bit of a struggle; guys like Butler and Teague do a lot of things very well, but neither provides a ton of spacing out beyond three for a team that also lost its best volume three-point shooter in Zach LaVine. For another, their depth could be suspect – always at least a token concern for a team coached by Tom Thibodeau, who’s been known to run his players ragged. Some are penciling in the Wolves as a playoff lock out West, with many even considering them as the favorites for the 5-seed or higher; to this eye, they’re closer to the rest of the conference’s middle that will compete for the final several playoff spots, though their ceiling is certainly higher than virtually all these other teams (Denver, LA Clippers, Portland, Utah, Memphis, etc). The Wolves could legitimately finish anywhere from second to fifth in the Northwest.

3rd Place — Northwest Division

— Ben Dowsett

With all that has transpired over the course of the offseason, it would have been somewhat easy to miss the fact that the Timberwolves probably had the best offseason of any team. Sure, the Celtics added Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving, but they were already the top team in the Eastern Conference last year, and most people would still pick the Cavaliers in a seven-game series.

The T-Wolves, on the other hand, are coming off of a 31-win season and haven’t even as much as made the playoffs since 2004. That’ll change this season.

With Jeff Teague, Jimmy Butler, Jamal Crawford and Taj Gibson joining Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, if things break right, the T-Wolves will make the Northwest Division the toughest in basketball. Although the Jazz are the defending champs, the loss of Gordon Hayward is going to hurt their chances of a repeat. The Denver Nuggets are on the uptick and Russell Westbrook has Paul George by his side.

Because of my belief in Tom Thibodeau, I’m willing to bet that, so long as the team is healthy, Thibs finds a way to land his team in the top three in the Northwest and lead them to a long-awaited return to the playoffs.

2nd Place — Northwest Division

— Moke Hamilton

It’s easy to think, “Don’t get ahead of yourself. There are a lot of new players here. And a lot of young players here. Don’t expect too big a leap in their first year trying to figure it all out.” But I’m defying all that logic and picking them to finish 2nd in the league’s most insane division anyway. We all were excited about the team’s young core a year ago, and now they’ve only improved upon that core by adding Jimmy Butler, Jeff Teague, Taj Gibson and Jamal Crawford to Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. They’re coached by a man possessed by the specter of perfectionism, and goodness do they look promising. There’s real star power here, and real depth. That slots them a bit ahead of Portland, Denver and Utah.

2nd Place — Northwest Division

— Joel Brigham

Tom Thibodeau used this summer to get some of his old Chicago Bulls band members back together in Minnesota. With a few solid building blocks in Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins already developing under Thibodeau’s tutelage, the former Bulls head coach traded for his former star shooting guard in Chicago, Jimmy Butler. Thibodeau then went a step further and acquired another one of his former players when the Wolves signed Taj Gibson in free agency. Adding those former Chicago guys to the mix in Minnesota, plus the signing of Jeff Teague, gives the Wolves a increased level of talent, and more importantly, veteran leadership to help guide the younger guys to their first ever playoff appearance. Thibodeau’s familiar faces should really put Minnesota over the hump and turn them into a true contender this season.

1st place — Northwest Division

— Dennis Chambers

The Minnesota Timberwolves are one of the more interesting teams entering the 2017-18 NBA season. Already featuring young talent like Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, while bringing in players like Jeff Teague, Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson, the Timberwolves have a lot of talent and the potential to finish as high as second and as low as fifth in the Northwest Division. Tom Thibodeau will be tasked with making all of this talent fit together in a coheisve manner, which will be difficult considering the team’s lack of overall floor spacing. The Timberwolves have nice talent but are short on quality three-point shooters, which is going to make like particularly difficult for Towns and Butler, who should anchor the team’s offense. The team’s defense is also going to need to improve significantly if Minnesota hopes to make some real playoff noise. Adding guys like Butler and Gibson should help on defense, but guys like Wiggins are going to need to step up their respective games.

3rd Place — Northwest Division

— Jesse Blancarte

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Karl-Anthony Towns

Yes, the Wolves acquired Butler, and yes he is a top 10-15 talent. But Towns remains the best offensive player on the team. He’s improved every year he’s been in the league so far. He is incredibly versatile offensively. He can post up like a traditional big man, and he can also play the wing like a guard. He has unlimited range as well. He shot 34.1 percent from the three-point line his rookie year, and 36.7 percent from downtown this past season.

He is also an improving playmaker. Interestingly enough, he’s almost in the mold of a young Kevin Garnett, who acted as a mentor to Towns as a rookie. Towns is a franchise talent in the making. He was the unanimous Rookie of the Year in 2016 when he averaged 18.3 points per game on 54.2 percent shooting. This past season, he upped that to 25.1 points on the same shooting percentage. Whatever fate lies ahead for the Wolves, Towns will definitely be at the center of it all.

Top Defensive Player: Gorgui Dieng

The clear choice here is Butler, and while he’ll have a major impact on the Wolves’ defense, it’s possible that the team’s most important defensive player is Gorgui Dieng. Dieng is the epitome of substance over style. He’s not going to wow anyone with spectacular plays, but he does so much of the little things that contribute to winning basketball, including playing defense.

Dieng has become a great shot-blocker and team defender. With the addition of Taj Gibson, Dieng might be moved to the bench. While Gibson is also a solid defender, he does not possess the shot-blocking prowess of Dieng. For someone like Towns who is still a work in progress defensively, having Dieng behind him waiting to challenge opponents at the rim is probably the better fit. It worked last year as Dieng fit seamlessly into the starting lineup.

Top Playmaker: Jimmy Butler

It was just an absolute steal for the Wolves to nab Butler. He can do so many different things on the court, including being a primary playmaker. Butler often played point guard at times with the Bulls, and he should get his fair share of playmaking duties with the Wolves as well. With the ball often in his hands last season, he averaged a career-high 5.5 assists.

The Wolves traded Ricky Rubio this summer who used to occupy the role of top playmaker on the roster. For a talent like Butler, Rubio, who is not a strong shooter to begin with, didn’t really fit alongside him. Jeff Teague is a much better fit as his shooting will help space the floor a lot better. With Teague behind the three-point line and athletic talents like Towns and Wiggins running the floor, Butler will have no shortage of options to pass the ball to. His assist numbers have gone up every year he’s been in the league and it’s possible that happens again this upcoming season.

Top Clutch Player: Jimmy Butler

When the Bulls needed a clutch shot last season, the ball was in the hands of Butler. He’s incredibly strong and athletic, allowing him to get his shot off over most defenders. He has cemented himself as one of the top clutch players in the NBA. Not only was he the Bulls top shot option in the fourth quarter, he was their top option period. Most of his time at point guard came down the stretch as the Bulls trusted him to not only take a clutch shot but make the right play as well.

The Wolves were a team that struggled late in the fourth quarter last year. Butler is the remedy. Thibodeau has a legit go-to option for whatever play needs to be made down the stretch.

The Unheralded Player: Tyus Jones

Jones has been an afterthought his first two years with the Wolves. Now with both Rubio and Dunn gone, the backup point guard spot is his for the taking. It’s possible that the Wolves still sign a veteran backup before the season starts, but it might be a good idea to start utilizing some of the overlooked young talent on the roster.

Jones has only played in a total of 97 games over the past two years, at 14.2 minutes per game. He was, however, used a bit more frequently this past season, Thibodeau’s first as head coach. He showed an ability to hit from downtown at a respectable 35.6 percent, as well as being able to steady an offense and make the right pass. He also showed he can be a solid defensive presence. His ability to score is still a question mark, but with Jamal Crawford generating most of the offense off the bench, simply getting guys good shots and taking the open shot when it comes to him is what he’ll need to do to really establish himself in his third season.

Best New Addition: Jamal Crawford

For a team that hasn’t made the playoffs in over a decade, adding a veteran like Crawford was exactly the type of move they should be making. Crawford may be 37 years old, and his shooting percentages have always hovered around the low 40s, but he remains one of the deadliest scorers in the league off the bench. His difficult shot making ability as well as being able to get his shot off against any defender is almost unparalleled.

He’s been a double-digit scorer his entire career, he averaged 12.3 points per game with the Los Angeles Clippers last season, and that should stay the same. The Wolves are in desperate need of consistent bench production and Crawford will address that issue. He also brings a ton of veteran experience, something that should rub off on the young Wolves.

-David Yapkowitz

WHO WE LIKE

1. Tom Thibodeau

Thibodeau has long been regarded as one of the toughest and best defensive coaches in the NBA. He helped transform the Big 3 Boston Celtics of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen into one of the best defensive teams of the past few decades. His Chicago Bulls teams were always among the top defensive teams in the NBA. Now, he’s looking to work his magic with the young Wolves. The additions of Butler and Gibson, two players he coached in Chicago, and two strong defenders will fit in perfectly with the system he runs. He’ll have to squeeze in all the new players, but Thibs can do it. A no-nonsense type of guy, he’s perfect to guide the Wolves back to the playoffs.

2. Andrew Wiggins

The least established of the Wolves Big 3 of himself, Towns, and Butler, Wiggins is still a force to be reckoned with. There was a lot of hype surrounding Wiggins when he entered the 2014 draft, and it came with some heavy expectations. Thus far, he hasn’t quite been the superstar many projected him to be, but that doesn’t mean that he isn’t an impact player, or that he can’t still emerge into that type of guy. His scoring has improved every season, going from 16.9 points per game two years ago to the 23.6 he averaged this past season. He shoots around 45 percent from the field which is very respectable for a wing scorer. What he’ll need to improve upon to take that next leap are his defense and three-point shooting. He’s got all the physical tools to become a top wing defender and consistently being able to hit the three-ball is a must in today’s game.

3. Jeff Teague

When the Wolves traded Rubio, they almost immediately came to terms with Teague as a free agent. For the roster that Thibodeau is building, Teague was clearly the better fit. Teague is nowhere near the elite playmaker that Rubio was, but that won’t matter too much with Butler as the de facto point guard on the floor. Where Teague will excel is his outside shooting. He can space the floor much better than Rubio which is a necessary skill in today’s NBA. He will help open up the lane for Minnesota’s Big 3. He also brings playoff experience and leadership to help steer the young guys in the right direction.

4. Taj Gibson

Gibson was one of the best role players on the market this summer and it was an excellent move for the Wolves to snatch him up. He can start or come off the bench and still make a solid impact on the court. He’s a good midrange shooter to help space the floor and he has a knack for playing around the rim and getting put-backs off missed shots. He is also a rugged rebounder and strong defender, traits that are necessary for Thibodeau’s system. Gibson is a veteran with years of playoff experience. Whether he starts or helps anchor the second unit, his impact will surely be felt.

5. Justin Patton

The deal for Butler was a home run for the Wolves even if he was the only player they received in return. The fact that they managed to acquire Justin Patton as well made the trade that much more in favor of Minnesota. Patton required offseason surgery for a foot injury and was unable to make his summer league debut. He will most assuredly miss time once the season gets underway and will have to postpone his NBA debut. If he manages to get on the court this season, however, he could have a solid impact. He’s an athletic big who can finish around the rim as well as step out and knock down jumpers. He’s also in the mold of a potentially elite interior defender. The Wolves have little front court depth off the bench, with Cole Aldrich and Nemanja Bjelica as the only realistic options. If Patton can get healthy quickly, he could find a spot for himself in the rotation.

-David Yapkowitz

SALARY CAP 101

The Wolves made their big play on the night of the NBA Draft, trading for Jimmy Butler. The team went on to use cap room to sign Jeff Teague and Taj Gibson, and spent its $4.3 million Room Exception on Jamal Crawford. Now all Minnesota has left to round out the roster are minimum contracts.

The team has until the start of the season to work out an extension with Andrew Wiggins. The Wolves need to pick up team options on Karl-Anthony Towns and Tyus Jones before November. With the sizable contracts of Gorgui Dieng, Butler, Teague and Gibson, the Timberwolves do not project to have any significant spending power.

– Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

The Wolves will have no trouble scoring the basketball, that much is clear. Butler, Towns, and Wiggins are all deadly offensive options. With Teague and either Dieng or Gibson rounding out the starting lineup, it will be tough for opposing defenses to slow them down. Although neither Dieng nor Gibson are known for their scoring, they are capable scorers when needed. Both can finish at the rim, and both have become strong midrange shooters. It’s a pick your poison type of situation. The bench is more of a question mark, but that’s where Crawford comes in. If the Wolves can get one or two other guys to provide consistent scoring for the second unit, they should be alright. Thibodeau plays a tight rotation, so whoever it is will need to give solid production.

-David Yapkowitz

WEAKNESSES

The Wolves were one of the worst teams in the league last season at finishing games. There were numerous instances when the Wolves went into the fourth quarter with a lead, only to see it evaporate and watch the game slip away in defeat. Enter Butler and Crawford, two players among those with the best crunch time reputations in the NBA. They should vastly improve the Wolves clutch decision making.

The defense was also an issue for the Wolves this past year. With Thibodeau bringing in some of his former defensive standouts like Butler and Gibson, that should help remedy their defensive woes. In order to make that jump to a true playoff contender in the West, it is imperative that the Wolves improve their defense to the upper echelon of the league.

-David Yapkowitz

THE BURNING QUESTION

Will the Timberwolves break through and end their decade plus long playoff drought?

It’s clear that playoffs are the ultimate goal for the Wolves this season. Their offseason moves reinforced that. The Western Conference is a tough place. The Golden State Warriors reign supreme with teams like the San Antonio Spurs, Houston Rockets, and Oklahoma City Thunder lying in wait. Outside of those four teams, though, the West should be much more of a tossup. Teams like the Los Angeles Clippers and Utah Jazz have taken steps back while the Denver Nuggets should be improved. When looking at the bottom half of the conference, the Wolves have as much talent as anyone, perhaps more. A 5-7 seed is definitely not out of the question. With Thibodeau at the helm, and a current superstar in Butler paired with a superstar in the making in Towns, the Wolves will not only end their postseason drought, but they will finish with a top-5 record in the West and give some team all they’ve got in the first round of the playoffs.

-David Yapkowitz

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